We currently live in very troubling times, where there has been a conspicuous resurgence of pre-medieval religious fundamentalism in the Islamic world, with widespread conflict and serial atrocities being performed in the name of “faith” in many parts of the developing world, especially Africa and the Middle East. This problematic trend is now inevitably spilling forth into Western democracies in this modern, globalised and increasingly interconnected world.
It is by no means the case, however, that all such violent and barbaric actions can be characterised as purely motivated along religious grounds. Far from it, in fact, given the avowed atheism of despotic leaders such as Mao Zedong, Joseph Stalin and Pol Pot, which proved no barrier whatsoever in each case to the indiscriminate genocide of millions of their own people. Nor did the overt occultist satanism of Heinrich Himmler and his SS inner circle, or the Teutonic paganism of Adolph Hitler for that matter, present any obstacle whatsoever to the deliberate slaughter of innocent men, women and children on a massive scale in the last century alone.
Nevertheless, this recently apparent trend of humanity devolving back to its seminal roots of religious intolerance, theocratic rule and sectarian warfare, with the widespread treatment of those of a different religious faith as sub-human creatures beneath contempt to be used with disdain as objects for sadistic pleasure or sexual gratification, causes one to pause and consider not only the nature of God (were He/She/It to exist), but also the overall influence of religious faith on the human species, particularly as it has manifest particularly over the last 2000 years.
I preface my argument by stating that I do not personally believe in any form of organised religion, and that I utterly reject the notion of God as some kind of moral arbiter or imperator for humankind. Nor do I accept the idea of an interventionist God who meddles in human affairs, inflicting divine retribution upon the faithless or the evil, or protecting the pious and the “righteous” from pain and suffering, or delivering comfort to the grieving, the ill or the infirm. I also do not believe in a God imbued with any of the human emotions, qualities or characteristics whatsoever, because I believe this merely derives as an extension of anthropomorphic beliefs that are ultimately a reflection of our collective tendency for conceptualising the metaphysical, were it to exist, in broadly humanistic terms, by harkening back to our animist roots in prehistory.
Similarly, I have no faith or belief in the infallibility or divinity of prophets or in prophesy, nor do I believe that the various manifestations of weather or climate, or the multitude of different natural disasters that are bound by the vagaries of chance to befall us, are driven in any way by any deity or supreme being or entity, no matter what religious denomination or faith may hope to lay claims of absolute hegemony over such matters of divine retribution.
Instead, I believe in a thoroughly dispassionate, utterly remorseless, relentless and entirely rational universe, one which is driven by forces that have the potential at least to be definable and explicable even in our rudimentary understanding. It is important however to acknowledge that there remains a multiplicity of aspects of our universal reality for which humankind has yet to find even a suitable perspective, let alone a remotely comprehensive explanation. And therein lies the broad chasm in which religious beliefs are able to find their niche, in the realms of the unknown, and more especially the unknowable in a vast and mysterious universe that defies easy explanation at the current level of our very basic human comprehension and experience.
Clearly, throughout prehistory when the pool of human knowledge was relatively small, and many natural phenomena defied what those of the time would have thought to be a rational explanation, it is not difficult to understand the attractiveness of a divine or supernatural being with the power to modify the very forces of nature at a whim, as a means of quelling fear of the unknown, for providing comfort and guidance in times of hardship, but also in promoting a stimulus to action in the face of any consequent adversity, no matter how futile or irrational such beliefs and their consequent actions seem from our modern perspective.
Of course, as a result of this understandable human trait in seeking such authoritative guidance in the face of the unknown, there have always been those individuals who lay claim to special knowledge or insight into the spiritual or the divine, whether that be the shaman, the druid, the guru or the various readers of the Abrahamic faiths: the rabbis, the priests, the ministers or the imams. This is unfortunately the foundation for what is commonly known as “organised religion”, where those who form the enlightened core of the cognoscenti of a particular faith then decide those who are to be schooled in its core beliefs, and as a consequence also those that can be entrusted with its “divine” knowledge. These “chosen” are then given the authority to disseminate not only among the followers of that religion, but in many cases to proselytise and evangelise to those who have not yet gained exposure to their particular brand of belief and faith.
Needless to say that this is the source of much of human history’s litany of religious conflicts and the ensuing misery and suffering, that being a battle fought for the hearts and minds of not just the faithful but the unbeliever, but also for control of the”flock” through the propagation of the mythology of the faith. This also requires the subjugation or conversion of the “infidel” or “heretic” to reduce in number those of competing faiths, with the aim of swelling the ranks of one’s own religion to the maximum achievable extent to the exclusion of any others. For some faiths, that is best achieved through peaceful persuasion as to the merits of the faith though its humane works, with others it is through indoctrination and ritual, while still others it can unfortunately extend even to the edge of the sword, or to the point of a gun.
In spite of the widespread abuse of this power by many of those same leaders of the various faiths, it would be remiss of me not to mention that to some extent this over-riding belief in a higher power or in a divine purpose for humankind has not necessarily led solely to the propagation of superstition and ignorance, but it has also in many instances sharpened the mind and strengthened the resolve by providing great and enduring inspiration to some of the greatest intellects of history; men and women who have vastly improved our understanding of the natural world and the universe, whilst being otherwise faithfully religious human beings who fervently believed in God and his dominion over mankind. Men of the calibre of Nicholas Copernicus, Francis Bacon, Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Rene Descartes, Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday, Gregor Mendel, Max Planck and Albert Einstein were known to be devout believers in a Judeo-Christian God, and are among the most highly influential and elite scientists in human history, responsible among other things for the development of the modern philosophy and concept of the scientific method itself, as well as instigating fundamental understanding and various other breakthroughs in the areas of genetics, astronomy, fundamental physics, electricity and magnetism, the characteristics of atomic and subatomic particles, and in the formulation of quantum theory.
It may be no coincidence therefore that the scientific enlightenment, from which much of our understanding of the universe arose, came from the predominantly Christian countries of Europe, a faith which drew clear distinctions between the Kingdom of God and faith, and the secular world which promoted the acquisition of scientific understanding.
Many of the most important figures in the history of science and philosophy have tried to reconcile their thoughts and their theories within their disciplines with their understanding of God, which in turn was largely viewed through the teachings inculcated by, and the preconceptions prevalent within the Christian Bible.
My personal approach to understanding the creation and structure of the universe, however, differs somewhat from those teachings in that I begin with the presumption that the Christian, or for that matter the Jewish or Islamic perception of God is a flawed one, born of the influence of organised religion and its sometimes less than pure motivation for the broadest of control of the general populace, and in the service of entrenching their role as the ultimate moral arbiters of wisdom and knowledge for their followers.
Thus, when looking for evidence of the existence or otherwise of some higher power that not only created, but shapes, guides and organises the universe, several physical manifestations appear to me to hold far greater promise than the concept of God as depicted in the Judeo-Christian tradition. According to the Big Bang theory of creation of the universe, for example, the universe originated in a dimensionless singularity where all the matter now within the universe was contained in its most highly organised state. Once that matter was released, thereafter the universe possessed high levels of entropy, the rate of increase of which must be finely balanced to support the formation of galaxies, planets and thus the environment capable of supporting life within the cosmos. So, the question must then be asked: Is the unseen force of entropy itself a form, or at least a manifestation, of what we might refer to as “God”, or at the very least a significant facet or even a fingerprint of a “creator” of some kind?
Additionally, at least in our current level of understanding, there are four fundamental forces that act to “organise” the universe, over and above and in contradiction to the overarching tendency toward disorder. These four forces, Gravitational force, Electromagnetic force, Strong Nuclear force and Weak Nuclear force, each act over vastly different ranges and at vastly differing levels of strength, but which, in concert, interact harmoniously and precisely to form the very structure of the universe. These four forces, therefore, demonstrate qualities which would be completely consistent with what a religious person might term “divine” creative forces, that could constitute non-anthropomorphic aspects or facets of what we traditionally refer to as “God”, in at least the Judeo-Christian context.
The various forces that combine to stabilise the structural integrity of the universe include:
- Gravitational force, which is relatively weak but very long ranged in acting over cosmological distances. It is always attractive, and acts between any two pieces of matter within the Universe since mass is its source.
- The Electromagnetic force, which causes electric and magnetic effects, such as the repulsion between like electrical charges. It is quite long-ranged, but much weaker than the Strong Nuclear force at close quarters. It can be attractive or repulsive, and acts only between pieces of matter carrying electrical charge.
- The Strong Nuclear interaction is, as the name implies, very strong but it is extremely short-ranged. It acts only over ranges of the order of 1 femtometer (the diameter of a medium sized atomic nucleus) and is responsible for holding the nuclei of atoms together against the force of repulsion among protons of like charge. It is basically attractive, but can be effectively repulsive in certain circumstances.
- The Weak Nuclear force, on the other hand, is responsible for radioactive decay and neutrino interactions and has a very short range, of the order of about 0.1% of the diameter of a proton. As the name suggests, it is extremely weak relatively when compared to its Strong nuclear counterpart, though arguably it is no less influential to maintaining the structural integrity of matter.
Thus, it can be seen from the above description that these fundamental forces of nature form a complex interactive and harmonious framework, where should any of the components vary even ever so slightly, then the very existence of the universe as we currently experience it would be fatally compromised.
If Gravity was too strong, then stars would burn too hot and too briefly to be conducive to producing and sustaining life, whereas if Gravity were too weak, stars would be too cool for nuclear fusion reactions to occur, thereby also being unable to support the formation of life.
If Electromagnetic forces were stronger or weaker, chemical and molecular bonding would be substantially impaired, and significant instability of various elements would also occur.
If Strong Nuclear forces were stronger, there would be no Hydrogen, an element essential to sustain life within the universe, while if weaker the only element would be Hydrogen, because higher molecular weight elements would be rendered completely unstable.
Finally, if Weak Nuclear forces were stronger or weaker, not only would neutrinos, quarks and leptons be unable to interact or transmute at a subatomic level, but also the heavy element expulsion from stars would be compromised, and the balance of Hydrogen to Helium produced at the Big Bang would have been altered dramatically.
It can be seen from the aforementioned that without this meticulously precise interaction between these four forces, each with its own special spectrum and range of activity, nothing that we experience in our present reality would exist and the very fabric of the universe would be rendered entirely hostile to the establishment, let alone the ongoing maintenance, of life. Does this apparent precision merely come down to the vagaries of chance? The vast improbability of this specific combination of forces being able to interact in such a complimentary way with one another to provide an environment capable of supporting life, is so great as to render probabilistic arguments in favour of mere chance to be completely unsustainable.
Does that mean that one must therefore believe in a deity or supreme being controlling the fate of the cosmos? I would argue that it doesn’t necessarily imply that, although it remains one possible explanation, albeit one that could never be falsified or refuted by its very nature. Rather, I would contend that there remains the distinct possibility that our universe is organised and shaped by forces which cross the boundaries of dimensional reality, that “bleed” from one or more higher dimensional planes across into our 4 dimensional space-time continuum. These forces may rely on the organisational principles found within those higher dimensions, principles that may possibly differ greatly from our own and be of far greater complexity by orders of magnitude. This higher order complexity might be the reason that these forces are organised within our dimensional space seemingly in such a precise, countervailing balance with one another. Our perception of “intelligence”, divine or otherwise, would therefore be largely irrelevant when contextualised against the organising principles of physics within these higher dimensional planes.
Beyond the purely matter-based aspects of the physical universe, there are many organising and creative influences that counteract the relentless chaos of the cosmos, including but not limited to the consciousness and cognitive processes of higher order organisms, the process of natural selection through evolution in perpetuating and propogating more suitable species over those with less favourable traits, and also in the recurring patterns found in nature, especially the so called golden ratio of the Fibonacci mathematical sequence, evident in such diverse situations as the orbits of the planets in our solar system, to the structures of various plants and insects, to the structure of DNA, to the proportions found in the human face to name but a few. These may be markers for the influence of the four fundamental forces found in our cosmos, the relationship to which may not be readily apparent to our current level of understanding, but which could realistically have its own internal logic that drives these organisational influences in ways we are as yet unable to define.
The concept of “God”, a divine and infallible creator, has a tantalising plausibility for many thanks largely to the endless wonders of our natural world, the mind-boggling complexity, diversity and innate beauty of life on our planet, and the awe-inspiring power and vast magnitude of the observed universe. The greater our understanding of the forces that shape the universe and the intricacy of the atomic and sub-atomic basis for the structure of matter, the more compelling this belief seems to be that there has been some kind of design or an over-riding plan or scheme that guides the formation and maintenance of this structure.
Notwithstanding this “Divine Creator” explanation that argues from the authority of holy writ (of whatever denomination), or ignorance of any other possibility to explain the inexplicable, I would argue that we indeed know so little of the nature and essential structure of the universe, both that which is observed and unobserved (remembering that it is generally held that approx. 80-90% of the energy and matter in the universe is unaccounted for in our present understanding), that we could just as easily be describing a “natural” physical phenomenon that guides us with seemingly clockwork precision, governed only by the rules of physics that originate in infinitely more complex realms of existence beyond the plane in which we mere mortal creatures currently reside.
In spite of this and other potentially plausible explanations for a universe free from guidance by divine intelligence and design, those atheists that dogmatically deny the potential existence of a Creator may well be skating on thin ice intellectually, although perhaps not to quite the same extent as those who, as a matter of course, assume one.
If indeed there exists a “God” that shapes the universe, it is my contention that this God is not a being as we currently conceptualise “Him”, but it would be appropriate to consider the Creator as an extracorporeal force (or interplay of forces) that not only provides the fabric upon which our universe is brought forth into existence, but also guides its path toward its eventual fate as either:
- the cold and lifeless oblivion of heat death (“The Big Freeze”),
- the cataclysm of reaching the limit of universal expansion (“The Big Rip”),
- the ultimate return to a perfect singularity (“The Big Crunch”),
- to an oscillating infinity mediated through contraction to a point where a reversal of gravitational forces occurs that then allows the universe to re-expand once again (“The Big Bounce”), or
- to some other fate that ultimately exceeds the limited purview of our understanding of the nature of the forces that shape our universe.